§ 9. Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con)
If he will make a statement on the current state of the United Kingdom relationships with south and central American countries. 
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell)
We enjoy good relations with all the countries in south and central America, and we value those relationships. We are pursuing a strategy to promote and support reform in Latin America, partly operating in conjunction with Spain.
§ Mr. Simmonds
I thank the Minister for that answer, but is he aware of the enormous concern of many Latin 157 and central American countries, which believe that the Government are disinterested and disengaged in their continent? The closure last year of several embassies, the transfer of much-needed aid from that area to Iraq and the potential further downgrading of diplomatic ties can only further harm not only vital economic and trade relationships, but essential cultural and social links. What will the Minister do to address that deteriorating position?
§ Mr. Rammell
I refute the accusation that the position is deteriorating. In the 14 months that I have held this ministerial portfolio, I have regularly visited Latin America. I gained the sense that the people there feel that we are engaged with them, particularly in respect of the Latin American reform programme that we are pressing forward. This Government, net of post closures, have increased their diplomatic representation by a figure of 10 since 1997, but we have to respond to changing strategic international priorities, especially regarding international terrorism and international crime. We are not abandoning those countries, which are continuing to be represented, albeit in different forms. A balance has to be struck. In the face of the proposed public expenditure cuts that Conservative Members advocate—
§ Mr. Speaker
§ Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab)
Does my hon. Friend agree with the Secretary of State for International Development that our aid should be used to help poor people in poor countries—in other words, that poverty alleviation rather than the pursuit of foreign policy aims should be the goal? Would it not be a terrible step backwards if we were to reinvent the Pergau dam, which the Conservatives used to divert moneys from the aid budget to support an arms deal in pursuit of foreign policy?
§ Mr. Rammell
There are certainly no proposals to reinvent the legislative framework within which the Pergau dam issue was pursued, but my hon. Friend hits the nail on the head in respect of aid to Latin America. The vast majority of countries there are middle-income countries, and the key challenge that they have to face is the extraordinary disparity between the very rich and the very poor. I know that many of them are seeking to deal with that.
§ Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)
I am sure that the Minister would agree that Chile has been a good friend to the UK in times of crisis, especially in respect of trade, and is an extremely well administered country in an area where that is often not the order of the day. What policies do the Government have to increase trade and contact with that important country in south America?
§ Mr. Rammell
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of Chile. When I visited the country just before Christmas, I was struck by the extraordinary degree of economic success that is being pursued there—under, I have to say, a left-of-centre Government.